The “Cernunnos” type antlered figure or “horned god”, on the Gundestrup Cauldron, on display, at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.
In my essay Olwen: Myth and Religion in the Fantastic I focused on the topic of forging a religiοus faith ab ovo based on mythology within a fantastic narrative. I especially touched on the mortal aspect of my mythic fantasy novel and explored the worship pertaining to my human characters.
As I’ve previously explained, Celtic motifs and perceptions abound in my work, so my cast of characters is quite miscellaneous. Therefore a number of races parade through the pages, bringing with them their own distinct beliefs and customs. I’ve essentially divided them into two groups: humans and otherwordly folk, the latter counting a cluster of kindred yet distinct nations.
The one that features prominently in my novel are the fairies or more specifically the faes as I’ve taken to calling them. Portrayed as wild and unpredictable but, also, passionate and instinctual, they are characterized by an immense joie de vivre, celebrating strength, nature, and the mysteries of life.
Keeping this psychological profile of theirs in mind, I wanted their divine cult to reflect all these qualities. And what deity could encapsulate them better than the Gaulish one named Cernunnos? For my human characters, I resorted to the The Mabinogion and the figure of Olwen, upgrading her status from a maiden with magical abilities to a divinity. However, for my fae characters there was no need to proceed likewise and fabricate a supreme being from scratch because the vision of the god I had conceived had already enjoyed once a real-life, historical basis.
But who is this fascinating deity and which are his origins?
In Celtic studies, Cernunnos is the conventional name ascribed to depictions of the horned god of Celtic polytheism. Predominantly worshipped amongst the Celtic tribes of Gaul and the Iberian peninsula, multiple examples of his imagery have been found, dating from the Gallo-Romam period. His illustrations typically present him with a pair of antlers, seated cross-legged and holding a torc or wearing it around his throat. His companions are often stags, horned serpents, dogs, bulls and rats, with the first two the most frequent.
Unfortunately, due to lack of surviving literary sources, not much is known about his name, worshippers or his significance in Celtic religion. However, Cernunnos is mostly associated with animals, nature and fertility.
His mame is spotted only on a Gallo-Roman monument, Pillar of the Boatmen, dating to the early 1st century CE. The Proto-Celtic form of the theonym is reconstructed as either *Cerno-on-os or *Carno-on-os. The augmentative -on- is characteristic of theonyms, as in Maponos, Epona, Matronae, and Sirona. The etymology of Cernunnos is unclear, but seems to be rooted in the Celtic word for “horn” or “antler” (as in Carnonos).
The Gaulish word karnon “horn” is cognate with Latin cornu and Germanic *hurnaz, English horn, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *k̑r̥no-. The etymon karn- “horn” appears in both Gaulish and Galatian branches of Continental Celtic. Hesychius of Alexandria glosses the Galatian word karnon (κάρνον) as “Gallic trumpet”, that is, the Celtic military horn known as the carnyx (κάρνυξ) by Eustathius of Thessalonica, who notes the instrument’s animal-shaped bell. The root also appears in the names of Celtic polities, most prominent among them the Carnutes, its meaning akin to “the Horned Ones”.
A comparison has, also, been drawn to a divine epithet Carnonos in a Celtic inscription written in Greek characters at Montagnac, Hérault (as καρνονου, karnonou, in the dative case) along with a Gallo-Latin adjective carnuātus that has, also, been found.
Now displayed in the Musée National du Moyen Age in Paris, the Pillar of the Boatmen monument was discovered in 1710 within the foundations of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, site of ancient Lutetia, the civitas capital of the Celtic Parisii. A strong hypothesis suggests it was originally constructed by Gaulish sailors in 14 CE.
The singular stone pillar holds a significant position as monument in the Gallo-Roman religion. Roman deities such as Jupiter, Vulcan, Castor and Pollux along with Gallic deities such as Esus, Smertrios, Tavros and Triganarus are depicted and labelled by name on its low reliefs. The name Cernunnos can be read clearly on 18th century drawings of the inscriptions, but the initial letter has been obscured since, so that today only a reading [_]ernunnos can be verified.
The god identified as Cernunnos in this monument is depicted with stag’s antlers, both having torcs hanging from them. The lower part of the relief is now lost to us, but the dimensions imply that the god was sitting cross-legged, a direct parallel to the antlered figure crafted on the Gundestrup cauldron.
Due to the Gundestrup Cauldron, some scholars describe Cernunnos as the “Lord of the Animals” or the “Lord of Wild Things”, with Miranda Green describing him as a “peaceful god of nature and fruitfulness”, his stance suggesting traditional shamans often depicted surrounded by animals.
Through the Pillar of Boatmen, Cerunnos is associated with sailors and commence, an obvious link to material wealth, something supported by the the coin pouch from the Cernunnos of Rheims (Marne, Champagne, France)—in antiquity, Durocortorum, the civitas capital of the Remi tribe—and the stag vomiting coins from Niedercorn-Turbelslach (Luxembourg) in the lands of the Treveri. The god may have symbolized the fecundity of the stag-inhabited forest.
Horned or antlered figures feature amongst the Celtiberians, too. For example, there’s a “Janus-like” god from Candelario (Salamanca) with two faces and two small horns, a horned god from the hills of Ríotinto (Huelva); and a possible representation of the deity Vestius Aloniecus near his altars in Lourizán (Pontevedra). The horns are thought to symbolize “aggressive power, genetic vigor and fecundity.”
Attempts have been made to link Cernunnos to Conall Cernach, the foster brother of the Irish hero Cuchulainn in the Ulster Cycle by virtue of the cern root in his name. Cernach is taken as an epithet with a wide semantic field—”angular; victorious; bearing a prominent growth”—and Conall is seen as “the same figure” as the ancient deity of Cernunnos.
However, there exists more evidence than merely their etymological connection. In a passage in the eighth-century story entitled Táin Bó Fraích (“The Cattle Raid on Fraech”) Conall Cernach is portrayed as a hero and mighty warrior who assists the protagonist, Fraech, in rescuing his wife and son, and in reclaiming for Fraech his cattle. The fort that Conall must penetrate is guarded by a formidable serpent. The tale, however, ends on an anti-climatic note when the fearsome serpent, instead of attacking Conall, darts to Conall’s waist and girdles him as a belt. Rather than slaying the serpent, Conall allows it to live, and then proceeds to attack and rob the fort of its great treasures the serpent previously protected.
By virtue of interpretatio romana, Cernunnos is seen as the Gaulish manifestation of the Roman Dis Pater, sharing the latter’s responsibility of ruling over the hidden treasures of the underworld. Treasures located underground were associated with the serpent in Medieval Bestiaries that guarded the otherworld and all its treasures and mysteries.
Cernunnos is depicted on a stone statue from a well in Sommerécourt, Haute-Marne, France, and on a bronze figurine from Autun. Both statue and figurine portray Cernunnos with the two ram-headed serpents encircling his waist. It’s no accident then that the serpent that guarded the treasure of the fort in Táin Bó Fraích yielded to Conall Cernach and became his actual, living belt. The anti-climax of the Táin Bó Fraích‘s end sheds light on the link between a horned or antler-bearing deity, warrior, or progenitor, and the chthonic dwelling, treasure-guarding serpent that girdled the waist of the one it chose to protect.
Some of Cernunnos’ qualties are reflected on the life of Saint Ciarán of Saighir, one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland who, upon the construction of his cell, accepted his first disciple and monk in the form of a boar that had been rendered gentle by God, the beast later joined by a fox, badger, wolf and stag.
Whether a god of fertility and the primordial call of the wild, a representation of material wealth and prosperity or the sacred keeper of the underworld, Cernunnos surely remains a fascinating and alluring figure, the mysteries of his cult now echoing in mythic narrations, patiently waiting to be unveiled and studied by those willing to dig deep enough to find the truth.